Entries in change (6)


Part 2: The Dig

When Mom died nearly four years ago, Dad didn’t move any of her belongings. Her shoes stayed next to the door, her pillbox on the table, her clothes by the dryer. He just went on living around them while his life piled on top. So with his death, one of our first tasks was to clear out their home, which meant going through both of their things at once.

My parents have lived in this house for 50 years—my brothers and sister moved here as teenagers, but this is my only childhood home. After so many years of stasis, the house and its contents felt like a tightly compressed ball of energy. When Dad died, it was like a fuse was lit, and all that energy exploded immediately in all directions. Keepsakes went out the door with children and grandchildren. Bags and bags went to thrift stores and recycling. But the majority was ready to be released as heat and light, and we filled an entire farm truck (twice) with things to be burned in Spokane’s waste incinerator. There was something so right about all that accumulated history and memory being turned into electricity, about clearing the house of the old to make way for the new.

As we cleaned, it struck us that we were conducting an archaeological dig. The top layer was composed of the remains of Dad’s last years alone since Mom died. This layer was mostly things that were clearly disposable: junk mail, old birthday cards, broken sprinkler heads, grocery lists, medication fact sheets, dried up pens and paper clips and popsicle sticks, and all the other little odds and ends that accumulate from daily living. In the parts of the house that he didn’t visit much, this layer consisted of a thick coating of dust.

Below that were the remains from Mom’s last couple years of illness before her death—foot braces, medical bills, memory books from the nursing home, pill bottles, well-worn clothes with her name written on the collars in permanent ink. And below that was a poignant layer of disorganization before we recognized that Mom’s mind was deteriorating. Books on the floor next to the bookshelf. Emails printed out but not filed. Unanswered letters and half-finished projects. I find in a wastebasket a particularly painful note marking the exact edge when Mom suddenly went from her capable self to no longer being able to write an email or care for herself. The note mentions an upcoming concert, then reads: “My condition is deteriorating noticeably. Katie is coming to go to the appointment with the neurologist with me.” This is her rehearsal for one of the last emails she wrote. And this is the only piece of paper in her garbage can. Before that she emptied her can regularly; after that she never used it.


When we skim all this recent history off the top, run the vacuum, and dust everywhere, suddenly the house that I remember when Mom was around is there underneath, still intact after all these years—the same tablecloth, the same memorabilia on the mantelpiece, the same piano music and books and pictures. It is a shock to realize how much the house had changed slowly into “Dad’s house” and to find this familiar place below.

Then we dig even deeper, past the recent history into closets and drawers where we unearth each of our childhoods. First mine—as I was the last to live there—in the puzzles and projects in the dining room cupboards. A replica of a saber-toothed tiger skull that I was chipping out of plaster. Colored plastic strands for braided bracelets. A pelican half-carved out of a bar of soap. Magazine pictures pasted onto scraps of plywood. Bits of lichen and seeds and dried flowers and shells.

Then the life of my siblings appears. In the filing cabinets there are folders for each child of their artwork, grades, school pictures, hospital records for tonsillectomies, and a packet a memorabilia from each birth. There are music lessons, the Learn to Draw with John Gnagy art set that they all drew from together, electronics kits and science fair projects, a row of my sister’s tennis trophies, window sills full of my brother’s pottery from a class he took in college, a quilt that my brother and sister-in-law made that is so well-worn from years of use that Mom had given up patching it. And for all of us, skis and ice skates. Pull toys and blocks. Caroms and Monopoly and Space Shot and Pit. Giant ancient flannel sleeping bags and army surplus camping gear. And the yarn and patterns from all the sweaters and blankets and socks that Mom knitted over the years for children and grandchildren.

Below that we find their life before children. Letters and photos from graduate school. A collection of scientific papers from the lab where my mother worked while Dad was studying physics. A box of unused wedding gifts. Photos of college ski trips. Biology notes, textbooks.  Then younger still—4-H ribbons, a red metal horse, a monkey that climbed a stick when you shook it, a little Japanese box with a secret drawer, a tiny candle stub, some “Willkie for president” pins, a pair of steer horns, an old bell with a strap small enough that it must have gone on a lamb.

We dig and sort, clean and cry, share memories and frustrations, and haul box after box out of the house. The sheer volume of information is overwhelming. I feel dizzy with it all, as though I am living in a house of mirrors and I can’t find the passage out. I am not even sure who I am grieving for anymore. Who just died? Is it Dad? Mom? The house? My childhood?

But as we uncover hidden stashes, sort closets and drawers—as room after room slowly empties, I feel like the house is breathing a sigh of relief. It is coming into the present. Soon it will be a place where the current farm owners can live and work. And at the same time, my ideas about my parents are coming into the present as well. My picture of my parents as people is filling in. Now that they are gone I can see in the reflection of their belongings more of who they actually were, rather than just my ideas about them. It’s so clear in this dig through the past that they lived for forty years before I showed up, and that all of my experience with them—all those events that are so fraught with significance to me—are just one small part of who they were. And if this is true of them as people, how much more true it is of them as souls, whatever that connection is to the vast fabric of the universe.


After two whirlwind weeks, I fly back to our trailer in Arizona. Two weeks of very little sleep left me physically tired, but more than that, I felt profoundly unmotivated. A good part of my energy still seemed caught back at the farm, 1500 miles away. Though I felt a sense of freedom in the first days after Dad passed, I didn’t have any plan for moving forward. No longer do I have to wonder whether I will be needed to care for him. No longer do I have to hope he won’t break a bone or wreck the car or burn the house down. And yet all I wanted to do was curl up around my memories and hide.

It has taken me a few weeks to get my feet back under me. It’s like I have been whirled in a blender and my ideas of who I am have been tossed around and broken apart. It is not an entirely unpleasant feeling, but I am still waiting for the present to coalesce again—waiting for the new reality to feel real.


The way it is

When I began this blog last year, I chose the opening line of William Stafford’s poem “The Way it Is” as the tagline:

There’s a thread you follow.

I knew this poem was important to me when I first read it many years ago, but I didn’t realize just how appropriate it would be for this past year. As I reflect on where I am at now, I realize that this poem puts into words what has been most important to me in our travels.

There’s a thread you follow.  It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.


Over the past year, we have lived in 80 different places. All of this moving around has made it clear what does change—which is pretty much everything. The people, plants, and animals all change. My thoughts, emotions, hopes, dreams, and fears all change. My relationships change, as does my personality. Weather, seasons—even the sun, moon, and stars all change, though you might have to wait awhile for that.

As Stafford says:

Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.

And yet, even in the midst of all this inevitable change, there is this thread.

While you hold it you can’t get lost.

The thread isn’t something I can describe directly. Like Stafford, I can only assert that it exists. There is no proof of it other than the action of following it. And I can only indicate where it is by recognizing where it is not. But when I returned back to familiar people and places this summer (noting the changes that had happened there as well) I realized that the true gift of this year was this simple: that in the quiet, I could feel that thread inside me.


I thought I was going to do a lot of reflecting and writing on the past year. I expected to spend this month creating a thorough retrospective of everything I had seen and done and learned. But though there are many experiences for which I am grateful—seeing Zion, meeting the community in Cascabel, getting comfortable using a laundromat, living for a while around cattle and horses, learning to walk in the desert, feeling the vast expanses of the Southwest, returning to friends and family…to list just a few—I think that my retrospective is done.

It is not the breadth of my experience that is most important, but the simplest thing that can be distilled out of all that experience. And that simple thing is this:

There's a thread you follow.

Following this thread led me into this year. It led me through this year. And following my thread will take me wherever I go next. That is enough.

So in the end, all that I learned this year was already there, right in front of me, all along.

The Way it Is
by William Stafford

There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.


p.s. I noticed that this was the only picture I took on our one-year anniversary two weeks ago. I guess some part of me was already tuning into the meaning of this year...and has a sense of humor...


Day 280: What is home?

May 25: Bosque del Apache NWR, New Mexico

In a couple weeks, Tom and I plan to be at my family's farm near Spokane where I grew up. Even though I have not lived there for nearly 30 years, I have continued to call it home, something that always confused things when we would drive from “home” in Seattle to “home” on the farm. Sure, I knew it wasn’t where I lived at the time, but it was always a more fundamental kind of home—a place that I originated from, that defined me, and by which I measured all other things.  It was a kind of center of gravity; something that you never really left.

For months now I have thought of arriving back on the farm after all of our traveling this year, as going home. But it suddenly hit me tonight, completely out of the blue, as I was in the middle of cooking a sausage for dinner:  the farm is not my home.

I am not sure I can explain the impact of this thought to anyone who moved frequently as a child. Those of you who did, got this lesson long ago.  But for someone who lived in the same place growing up, a place that was such a force of life, a place which still exists essentially unchanged today, this idea felt like a small revolution in my mind.

The farm is not my home. Yes, it is the place I grew up. Yes, it will always be part of me. Yes, there are people I love there. But it is their home, and it seems important, at this point in my life in particular, that I stop calling it mine.

Which of course raises the question: What is home? Is home the structure I live in? Is this trailer, that we have now hauled around the West to 60 different places, home? It certainly is no small comfort to have this little island of familiarity to return to each day, but is that all that home is? Is home where the heart is—with the partner that I have chosen to live with? Or with family? Or with the community of people I work and share friendships with? In the past, I have associated home with a location—a piece of land or a kind of landscape. I remember when I first moved west of the Cascades in my early 20’s how utterly lost I felt immersed in unfamiliar weather and plants, and how long it took me to begin to recognize this new place as somewhere I belonged.

May 10: Winky at Sunny Flats Campground, Cave Creek Canyon, Chiricahua Mts, Arizona

This past year, though, has given me a new perspective. That perhaps it isn’t something on the outside that is home, but rather something inside myself. And that perhaps when I am in touch with this inner home, my outer home can expand. Perhaps (as I began to consider in earlier posts) the whole world is my home. Perhaps wherever I happen to live is part of a much larger whole. Perhaps this is another way to “hide the world in the world.”

And perhaps letting go of calling the farm home, and recognizing that I am a visitor there, is a step toward embracing a fundamental contradiction: that while I am at home everywhere I go, I am also a visitor everywhere I live. As my sense of belonging widens, perhaps my sense of possession can lighten. Perhaps I can learn to be a partner with the place I live rather than its master.

What I can be master of is myself. And that mastery brings with it confidence. The confidence to say: Where am I today? And to answer: Today I am at home, in myself and in the world.


Well, I can never eat corn again

Day 13: Our first night at Cape Disappointment State Park, we shopped for groceries at Thriftway and bought fresh corn, not so much because we intended to get corn, but because it was labeled Sauvie Island Corn, so was (relatively) local, and we have fond memories of birding together at Sauvie Island when we were both just learning. So in the basket they went—four ears, two for each of us—though each of us being raised on our father’s corn which must be picked in the hour before eating or it was “too old,” we did not have high hopes.

Once back at camp, I realized I did not want to boil a pot of water for four ears of corn inside the trailer (so much about trailer-living in wet climates being about managing moisture.) Well, we have wood—how about roasting? Neither one of us had ever roasted corn over a fire, but Tom suggested I stuff some butter in the husk, wrap the ears in foil, and put them on the built-in grill over the fire pit. So that’s what we did, and after about 20 minutes of turning and peeking and wondering, we had The. Best. Corn. We-had-ever-eaten. EVER! Smoky-flavored and crisp and sweet, and somehow when we bit down on the cob, the whole kernals would pop out like little nuggets of toasted delight instead of the tough, mushy, sticky things we expected from store-bought corn. Must be the roasting, I thought. That’s the secret!

So last week when we arrived in Skamokawa, Washington (Day 18) and found ourselves just in time for the Puget Island Farmer’s Market that listed “CORN” as the feature of the week, I bought six ears. Back at camp, we eagerly bustled about—making the fire, poking butter into the leaves, wrapping the ears in foil. Now we know what we are doing! This is great!

But when we unrolled the charred packages we discovered what we expected before—kind of tired, end-of-season corn, with that soft, starchy, slightly-overripe texture that mushes instead of crunching, and leaves a flock of sticky corn-skins stuck in your teeth. And not only that, but it was a little too late; the wood a little too wet; the fire too smoky; we were too tired from traveling; and the neighbor RV’er was just too loud…

Let me say that the rest of the generous bag of goods we bought at the market was amazing.  REALLY amazing, especially for September—crisp leaf lettuce, perfect brocolli, plump zucchini, tender carrots, fresh-baked focaccia and chocolate chip cookies. That market was a blessing to us in what can sometimes feel like a desert of canned and packaged vegetables. But I should have known better about the corn, known that you can’t step twice in the same river. I should have been content with what I had instead of trying to recreate a perfect evening.

This is what happens so often when we get something good. We want more of it. We want it again. We want certainty. We want control, instead of simply trusting the good graces that brought the good thing to us in the first place to bring us the next thing in its own time, unasked for and unearned, and possibly after a string of not-so-good things, but coming to us as certainly as one season after the next.  Because that goodness is all around us, and inside us. It is already there without being sought out, created, or preserved. It only needs receiving and re-receiving on its own time. Always fresh. Always unexpected. Always new.

So I will likely have corn again, as I do like corn; and really, even when its bad, it’s pretty darn good. But I might wait for awhile. And I won’t expect it to live up to that first corn-roasting experience. I will recognize that that night is unrepeatable. That though it is precious in my memory, it has passed on, like every other thing, both good and bad. I’ve moved on; life moves on. That is the way it is. Traveling like this makes that clearer to me. But the more I know this, the freer I am to step into each moment, whatever it brings, with my whole heart, and with all my feelings, just experiencing everything for what it is.


The "Betweens"

We are at the stage of preparation where the old life and the new life collide. Sometimes it feels like I am standing in strong surf at the edge of the ocean.

We are still very much in our old life—fixing up the house, closing my therapy practice, replanting the garden, distributing our belongings, finishing creative projects. At the same time, we are also working to create our new life—making a home out of a truck and trailer, thinking of how we will do the things we take for granted (like make pizza!), setting up ways to stay in touch with friends and family, planning where we will go.

Last winter it was easier to know where to focus: most of our energy went into dismantling what we have. Now it is less clear. So many projects demand our attention. New things need to be built. Old things need repair. Every day brings the challenge of doing something I've never done before, or the challenge of letting go of something I am finished with. I am grieving the loss of the old life. At the same time I am impatient for the arrival of the new. Both of them demand daily attention. It is not always clear where to focus.

This is a little like walking toward the ocean. At first we were on familiar solid ground, listening to the surf in the distance and dreaming about the water. As we walk forward, the sand gets softer and the waves get louder. We can smell the salt and the decaying kelp. As we continue, the sand underfoot becomes wet and hardpacked. Water sits in little pools around us. Then a wave rushes up the beach and touches our feet. The hard sand we are standing on starts to melt beneath us.

If we keep going, we will eventually wade out into the water and remember how to swim. Or find a boat. But for now we have to look to both land and ocean at once. We have to watch for rocks or holes underfoot, while also gauging the waves approaching us, keeping our footing as they wash around us, trying not to get knocked over before we are ready.

It takes a lot of energy, but it is also invigorating. Change is happening all the time. There is an abundance of life—and death. Sometimes I feel like a bit of seaweed dragged around at the water's edge, flung up on the shore and then pulled helplessly back out to sea. I need to remind myself at those times to take a bigger persepctive. To look up from whatever is occupying my attention and see the shoreline, see the giant wedge of land meeting the great swell of ocean. See myself as part of that landscape. Know that whatever happens, I am at home.


To begin with ... endings

I stare at the 40 emails in my drafts folder and know I should click "send." But I can't move.

This feels like the moment when you bring your cat to the vet because you know she is dying and ask them to put her to sleep.  Everything in you says "no." There are tear stains on the inside of your glasses from crying so hard. All you want is more time. But some part of you knows that today is the day. That this is what needs to happen. That this is part of the deal—what you signed up for when that adorable kitten showed up all those years ago.

These emails sitting in front of me are addressed to my clients in my therapy practice, letting them know that I am taking a year-long sabbatical. Not only that, I don't know what will come after that, don't even know if I am coming back to Seattle. This is a big change. There is no way to make this feel like it isn't coming out of the blue. I know people will be surprised, and some will be unhappy.

Besides that, I am having a hard time letting go. I grew this practice myself. It is something I have wanted for a long time and I love the work. I work with great people. I can walk to my office. I have no complaints.

But I have realized that there are other things calling to me and if I don't pay attention I will no longer be living my own life. No matter how enjoyable it is, no matter how many people benefit from it, a path that is not my own starts to gnaw at me, and eventually creates havoc in myself and in others.

You have to follow your thread.

People have said to me in the past, "You are courageous to do....(bla bla blah.)" I never really took that too seriously, and I have never felt courageous. I don't think I even knew what it meant. But today, as I finally pressed "send" for each one of those emails, I could feel that it was courage that allowed me to do this. That courage allowed me to face the pain of dismantling something I built myself. Courage allowed me to acknowledge the fear of disappointing people. Courage challenged my doubt about whether "good therapists" take breaks. It was courage that kept me moving forward, the everyday kind of courage that we all have access to.

I used to think of courage as some badass thing, like wrestling with mountain lions. I am realizing that courage is more ordinary than this. It is simply the thing that gives our lives structure during uncertainty or difficulty. Courage is not just some special ability that arises in crisis, like being able to lift a car off a loved one; courage is also like the nails that hold the roof together during a windstorm. We don't even think about those nails most of the time, but without them all we would have is a pile of lumber.

I like thinking of courage this way. I imagine all the nails in the roof above me right now, the rafters and beams and joists and sheathing and shingles all shot through with their little slips of metal, creating a safe place from the rain. And I can feel the courage inside me, something ordinary but awake, like a tiny fire in every cell, ready for the next storm.